The first woman in the world to design, build, and fly an airplane was Irish.
On an August morning in 1910 what sounded more like a large-scale catfight than an engine, revved in Randallstown, Co. Antrim in Northern Ireland. Lilian Bland gave it a little more gas and Mayfly moved forward, faster and little faster, until it lifted itself off the grassy track and rose up into the air. Giving it a few more tries that day, she grinned from ear to ear. She had done it. She would always know she was the first woman in Ireland to fly an airplane and the first woman in the world to design and build one.
Lilian was never one to hesitate when she got an idea to do something. By the time she was 32, the year she flew, she had already traveled throughout Europe, been a sports photographer and journalist, a proficient hunter and crack shot, and horse trainer and rider. Daring and unconventional as she could be for a woman at the turn of the 20th century, she walked about in breeches, smoked cigarettes, rode astride (not sidesaddle) and practiced Ju-Jitsu.
And when her uncle sent her a postcard picturing Louis Blériot’s aeroplane that had crossed the English Channel in July 1909, she looked up at the seagulls she was photographing in Scotland that day and decided what her next project would be.
When she returned to Ireland in early 1910, she started building a kite-like model biplane out of bamboo, spruce, fabric, and wire. She steamed the wood to curve it’s 6-foot wingspan like the seagull wings she had observed. It flew beautifully.
Next she built her design into a glider large enough to hold herself as pilot and added a set of bicycle handlebars to steer it. This wafted into to the air as well, but she needed to know if it could hold the weight of an engine. So she enlisted the help of four burly constables and a gardener named Joe Blain.
With all the guys hanging on to the outside of the plane, she took off, and the whole shebang lifted into the air for a few seconds, until the constables got spooked and let go. Only Joe stuck around for the rest of the ride, but it was enough to convince Lilian that adding the engine would work.
So she sent to England for a gas engine and a propeller. When she heard her order was delayed, she went to the factory in Manchester herself and brought it back by boat and train even though the gas tank was still not finished. No worries. When she got home she just cobbled one together from a whiskey bottle and her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet. This girl was just unstoppable.
After waiting for the windy rainy weather to clear and puzzling through several mechanical difficulties for weeks, finally the day arrived when she could test her creation with a real flight. The Mayfly (named after the doubters around her said it “may fly or may not”) would have its moment of glory.
With the engine situated behind her, Lilian settled into the pilot’s seat and called out to her helpful friend Joe Blain to give the propeller a spin. The engine kicked in with a roar and she was off the ground for at least a quarter mile and 30 feet high.
“I could hardly believe it. After each flight, I ran back to see where the wheel tracks left the grass to convince myself that I really had been airborne,” she said.
From Airplanes to Automobiles
It was a glorious day, but it was the last one in Lilian’s flying career. Her father’s nerves had had all they could take, and he offered to buy her a Ford Model T if only she would give up flying airplanes. As a woman of many interests and aware of the huge expense required to take her Mayfly to the next level, she accepted pretty willingly.
Cars would be her next adventure. She taught herself to drive and started a Ford dealership in Belfast, which she managed successfully for a couple of years.
A Simpler But Harder Life
In 1912 she married her cousin Charles Bland and emigrated to Western Canada where together they built a farm in a remote area with a view of a quiet sound. Of course she took her camera with her and made more than 400 photos while she lived there, recording their rustic pioneer life on the Canadian frontier.
One picture shows her true to form in overalls with an early motorized farm tractor that looks similar to a push lawnmower. The caption says it had several different attachments that could accomplish various farm tasks. She was also known for her expertise in repairing boat motors.
In 1913 their daughter Patricia was born and in 1922 their son Jackie. Lilian captured many adorable photos of them as children playing on their farm with lots of dogs, cats, cows and horses. Patsy, as they called her, took after her adventurous mom wearing pants and working and playing hard in the wilderness. The photos in a gallery here are full of fun and smiles.
Then in September 1929 tragedy struck. Patricia, Lilian’s dear daughter, best friend, and constant companion, died of a tetanus infection at the age of sixteen. The disease leads to a terribly painful end and they were not able to provide her with medical help in their remote location.
Lilian was devastated.
“A child of the woods, a born naturalist and artist, she was yet my right hand in all practical work, with the skill and energy of an old-timer, utterly unselfish, calm and brave in the face of danger. She died as bravely as she had lived, without the help that science and civilization might have given to dull the agony. Death in connection with one so full of life seemed impossible — unreal,” Lilian wrote in a letter some months later.
Even before Patricia’s death, money had become scarce for the family and life for Lilian seemed nothing but day after day of grinding work. Finally in 1935 with her marriage failing, Lilian decided to move to Kent, England, where she was born. She lived with her brother there until the 1950s when she retired to a cottage in Cornwall. She spent her days gardening until she died in 1971 at the age of 92.
In 1964 she received a letter from a firm in Dublin which must have done some research into the history of aviation in Ireland. It said, “I can at last send you photocopies of the local paper dealing with Harry Ferguson’s first flight and then yours. You will see that you were the first biplane, but he was the first aeroplane proper. At any rate you must have been the first woman in the world to build and fly an aeroplane, which isn’t so bad.”
Lilian Bland and her Mayfly are commemorated with this sculpture designed by Skelton Rainey. You can see it in Glengormley Park, located in Glengormley, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland.
From as early as the 1630s immigrants from Ireland were arriving on the shores of North America, joining the mixture of nationalities in a steady stream, and sometimes in waves, up to this very day. They brought with them a strong devotion to their native culture, appreciated their freedom to express it here in the States, and shared it generously until many colorful influences from Irish culture became part of the fabric of American and Canadian culture.
So in this month of March, designated to celebrate Irish American Heritage in the US, we’ll take a look at three aspects of American culture and how the Irish left their mark on them.
Before the American Revolution, most Irish immigrants were Protestants from Ulster, also known as Scots-Irish. They tended to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. American bluegrass, folk, country, and Western music can trace its roots back to the Celtic folk tunes they played. There are many well-known American songs that sound a lot like their Irish counterparts.
One good example is the classic Western song “The Streets of Loredo”.
Compare it to “The Unfortunate Rake” and see if you can hear the similarities.
English is a language cobbled together from several languages, and American English is especially peppered with words from other languages due to our long history of immigration. And our Irish ancestors have contributed many. Here are a few examples:
“Slew” as in “a whole slew of dancers at the céilí,” comes from the Irish word slúa which means "many."
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish Americans began to sort into two classes known then as the “lace curtain” Irish and the “shanty” Irish. The lace curtain group had prospered and joined the middle class, while the shanty Irish lived in poorer conditions. The word "shanty" comes from sean tí, Irish for “old house.”
And there were plenty of political rallies where people chanted catchy phrases. These reminded Irish immigrants of sluagh-ghairm, the yell of a crowd or a battle-cry. That’s why we call them “slogans” now.
Two more Irish words will likely sound familiar: clann which means "family," and gleann which means "valley."
There’s a book called How the Irish Invented Slang by David Cassidy, but I only mention it to let you know that it has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Most experts in the Irish language consider it complete nonsense and an academic scam. So now you won’t fall for that one.
The Virginia Reel, a popular party dance throughout the 1800s, was influenced by English country dance and the Haymaker’s Jig, an Irish céilí dance. American square dancing, too, shows some aspects of Irish céilí and set dances.
But the Irish contribution to the most uniquely American dance form is probably the most significant. Tap dance originated when enslaved African people and Irish people saw each other’s dance moves in the 1800s. Somewhere along the line English clogging joined the mix. Then Vaudeville performers took this early fusion and refined the steps over time. Later, dancers took tap even further in movies and Broadway shows and it keeps evolving to this day.
Here’s an excellent 5-minute documentary, featuring some cool vintage dance footage, that traces the eclectic mix of cultures that gave us American tap dance.
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